"My niece left my house every day to go to school -- but did she go? No."
Shirley Rucker was trying to convince the Pittsburgh Public Schools' board to authorize funding to keep The Academy -- a small alternative high school begun in partnership with the Juvenile Court of Allegheny County last fall -- open another semester. The Academy in Hays provides troubled students with very small classes, door-to-door transportation (even a "late van" for oversleepers), breakfast and lunch, phone calls home to check that students are keeping their curfews and -- when students break school rules -- an overnight detention facility. Last August, the board had approved $280,000 -- $6,400 per pupil for the semester -- for 40 students to attend The Academy for one semester. That semester ends this week.
The Academy is designed to help delinquent youths on probation for crimes such as assault, drug violations and weapons possession, as well as the habitually truant. Rucker noted that her niece, unlike most Academy students, had not been charged with an offense.
"I was even paying a jitney so she wouldn't have to walk in the cold!" Rucker said -- but it wasn't enough to keep her in her regular classroom. Another parent personally escorted her son to school on a city bus several times. According to Academy Executive Director Joe Daugerdas, 95 percent of its students attend regularly. Last year, each of them had missed 50 or more days of class.
The Academy, said parents who testified, caught their kids as they were sliding through the very last cracks in the educational system.
School attendance is usually a condition of probation for minors, juvenile court probation supervisor Leonard Thomas told the school board. If it weren't for The Academy, the courts would have to send persistent truants to an institution like Shuman Juvenile Detention Center -- even though their charge might not warrant such restriction. Furthermore, Thomas argued, "Institutionalization creates an artificial environment. We need to address their issues in the communities from which they come."
The Academy began with a "Day/Evening" program in 1982 as an alternative to institutionalization and to help kids make the transition home from detention facilities. But that program doesn't rely on Pittsburgh Public Schools funding. Last year, Court of Common Pleas judges and The Academy administrators asked the city school district to be the principal funder of a full-scale alternative high school for 75 students. The board funded slots for 40 students, and for just one semester.
In order to keep the program running into the second semester with no funding interruption, the school board would have to approve funds soon after the semester ends on Jan. 30.
The portrayal of The Academy by Rucker and three other parents contrasted sharply with what district administrators told the board earlier this month. Superintendent John Thompson gave the most critical assessment: "When you charge someone $12,000 [per year] you expect the full program." The district says regular high school costs average $9,644 annually per pupil. "Overall, The Academy hasn't been in the business of education," Thompson continued. "[They've done] more the social part. I visited each classroom. I talked to almost all the students. It's not an instructional environment. Only one class was prepared to go to work."
Meanwhile, several Court of Common Pleas judges who support The Academy glowered in the doorway of the overflowing board conference room. (Academy head Daugerdas denied a reporter's request to observe The Academy, saying it would be too disruptive. He declined to allow any students to be interviewed.)
District staff who observed Academy classes offered the board many upbeat comments -- "Mr. [James] McClenhan remained positive and interactive with students who were not academically motivated," wrote one observer -- but others were unflattering: "At least a set of paperback novels should have been provided by now," wrote one witness about an English class in November. "It is a travesty to expect students to sit in class and do Xerox worksheets every day." Another observation, about a math class: "One student slept undisturbed the entire period, and another student slept most of the period, except for brief intervals when he complained to the teacher about working on the same packet of materials for four weeks in a row, or about having to do boring work he already knows how to do."
"Maybe I'm the only one reading these?" board member Daniel Romaniello said. "There's nothing good in some of these letters. We toured The Academy. They knew we were coming, and it was impressive. But this raises concerns."
After the meeting, Romaniello phoned The Academy's Daugerdas.
"I said in no uncertain terms, 'I feel duped,'" he relates. "'We saw all those kids sitting in place, and everything was nice and shiny and bright. Then I get this report. You knew we were coming out and you put the spit and polish on it.' He was straightforward about all my concerns -- no 'I'll get back to you,' or feeding me a line of b.s. He said, 'Come again,' and I took him up on it."
During his second visit, Romaniello reports, "I didn't see anything close to what was in some of those reports. They're not trying to hide any problems, they're addressing the problems."
As Daugerdas said recently: "We do have books now.
"I think there were valuable criticisms," he added, "but it has to be taken into perspective. These are students who have behavior problems, who have not attended school. This is not a typical learning environment -- a lot of the day is dealing with behavior. Over time, their behavior starts to improve and you can teach. A lot of those kids are learning a lot, and they weren't last year -- because they weren't attending."
"We feel we've got something good here," echoes Jim Rieland, director of the Allegheny County juvenile court. "We understand delinquent behavior." As for the school district's objection to The Academy's high tuition costs, Rieland responds: "Treatment is extremely expensive." If students violate their probation and get sent to an institution, the costs are much higher, he points out -- $135 to $175 daily, for an average stay of 5-7 months -- and "the school district will have to pay for education costs" at the institution too. When kids are released, they often have trouble returning home and to their regular schools and may resume negative behaviors, Rieland adds. "We're taking the steps necessary to get students back into school. ..."
It's not certain whether the Pittsburgh school board will buy these arguments. Thompson told the board last week that he couldn't recommend funding the program as it was operating last semester. According to the district's Chief Academic Officer Andrew King, negotiations between the district and The Academy have been held behind the scenes. And on Jan. 26, the district's newly appointed executive director of student services, Westlynn Davis, said she will recommend to the school board that the contract be extended another semester, but with several additional requirements, such as professional development for The Academy's teachers, curriculum training, technology enhancements and the creation of individual education plans for students.
As for Romaniello, he says he hasn't made up his mind about whether he'd vote to continue funding The Academy. But, he says, "The one concern I have is ... these are kids with problems to begin with. These are not children that need to be bounced around."